It's a wonderful town

by Lou Lumenick / New York Post
December 5, 2009
It's a wonderful town

SENECA FALLS, NY — It’s a wonderful life indeed in Seneca Falls, where the resemblance to the film’s fictional Bedford Falls is evident as you ride along the main drag. It’s clear even before you get to George Bailey Lane and the steel-truss bridge spanning the canal.

“The village of Seneca Falls may have inspired the hometown look of Frank Capra’s 1946 holiday film classic ‘It’s a Wonderful Life,’ ” proclaims a plaque bolted to the bridge.

There’s no doubt at all in the mind of former child actress Karolyn Grimes, who played George Bailey’s daughter Zuzu in the film. She will appear next weekend as the star attraction at the 8-year-old “It’s a Wonderful Life” festival in this struggling village five hours northwest of New York City.

“I gasped when I came around the corner and saw the main street, it was so much like the movie,” says Grimes.

The Bedford Falls of “It’s a Wonderful Life” was a massive outdoor set with 75 buildings, constructed on the RKO ranch in Encino, Calif.

The snow during the Christmas scenes was mostly a mixture of foamite, soap and water sprayed out of high-pressure nozzles, according to Jeanine Basinger’s “The It’s a Wonderful Life Book.”

If you look closely at the new Blu-ray release of the film, you can even see James Stewart, as banker George Bailey, perspiring in a heavy coat during a California heat wave when the film was shot during the summer of 1946.

The Web site for the Seneca Falls festival — — notes the film is set in New York state and that there are references in dialogue to nearby Rochester, Buffalo and Elmira.

A popular theory here is that Capra stopped in Seneca Falls on his way to visit an aunt in Elmira after trying unsuccessfully to persuade actress Jean Arthur to play Mary Bailey in the movie, the role taken by Donna Reed.

For decades, a barber named Tommy Bellissima claimed that in early 1946, he gave a haircut to a man named Capra who passed through town — and didn’t recognize the name until “It’s a Wonderful Life” turned up at the local Bijou.

Capra doesn’t mention Seneca Falls in his autobiography, nor did the director ever speak of being inspired by a specific town in the many interviews gave about the film before his death in 1990.

“I hate to be the Mr. Potter of this story,” says Basinger, who supervises Capra’s archives at Wesleyan

University in Connecticut, referring to the banker who brings Bailey to the brink of suicide.

“But I asked Frank repeatedly about this, and we’ve been through his papers many times, and there’s absolutely no evidence he ever visited Seneca Falls.”

Though some point to another, older plaque on the bridge honoring a man who saved a suicidal woman from drowning — shades of George Bailey! — in 1917. Basinger notes that key plot element comes from “The Greatest Gift,” a 1943 short story by Philip Van Doren.

Capra didn’t become involved with what was retitled “It’s a Wonderful Life” until late 1945.

“The movie’s real strength is that all of us who grew up in a small towns see our hometowns in it,” says Basinger. “The art direction and the sets are so perfect.”

Basinger’s doubts have scarcely discouraged Seneca Falls, even though the head of the festival committee, Bonnie Vaughn, cheerfully acknowledges that half a dozen other towns around the United States also consider themselves the model for Bedford Falls.

Seneca Falls can really use the Hollywood connection right now.

More than half the stores along the main street are empty, and Victorian bed-and-breakfasts like Barrister’s — which Grimes says closely resembles the house where the Baileys “lived” — could use the business the festival brings.

Started as a small local event, the festival has grown into a major tourist attraction that drew more than 1,000 people last year — some from as far away as Germany and Australia.

“Even a blizzard doesn’t keep people away,” Vaughn says. “Last year, a couple got married during a blinding snowstorm.”

This year, the festival is expanding into a three-day event (starting Friday) including an angel parade, train rides, a Christmas tree lighting, horse-drawn wagon rides, “Ma Bailey’s Hot and Hearty Cook-Off,” and a “Dance by the Light of the Moon.”

Locals costumed as characters from the movie will circulate, and storefronts will be decorated as “Bailey’s Building and Loan” and “Gower’s Drug Store.” Antonioni’s, a bar and restaurant on what was the Italian-American side of Seneca Falls, becomes “Martini’s” for the duration.

Grimes will be busy signing autographs and reciting her most famous line from the movie: “Every time a bell rings, an angel gets his wings.”

The busy former child actress will also judge a muffin eating contest at (where else?) Zuzu’s Café and host a period fashion show at the Hotel Clarence.

“It’s a Wonderful Life” plays 24/7 in the lobby of the Hotel Clarence, a landmark renamed for the angel who saves George Bailey in the movie by giving him a chance to see what would have happened if he had never been born.

Locals hope the $6 million renovation of the Clarence will work a similar miracle for Seneca Falls, which has fallen on hard times during the recession.

“I like the connotations of the name,” says Joachim Ohlin, the hotel’s director of hospitality.

“Some producers are even interested in making a TV pilot that would star Karolyn as the innkeeper at our hotel,” he says.

Even a skeptic like Basinger is not unsympathetic to this burgeoning cottage industry in a struggling small town. “Look, maybe there’s a box in an attic somewhere with proof that Frank Capra visited Seneca Falls,” she says. “Capra liked myths, and this is one he probably would have loved.”